Welcome back to ‘Voices of Early Career Researchers’, a monthly feature on the French History Network blog. Each month we’ll post a short interview with an Early Career Researcher of French History, giving you an insight of the different paths that ECRs are following after their PhDs in and outside of academia: what do the lives of recently appointed lecturers, teaching assistants, post-doctoral researchers or teaching fellows etc. look like? How does one transition from PhD to the post-doctoral years? We invite our interviewees to share their experiences and we hope that the conversation carries on in universities, conferences and social media.
Noëmie Duhaut completed her BA, MA and PhD (2017) at University College London. She was a visiting postdoctoral fellow in the Jewish Studies programme at Dartmouth College in the summer 2017 and is currently a Lady Davis Postdoctoral Fellow at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. She tweets @Noemie_Duhaut
Could you tell us a little about your PhD?
My scholarship generally speaking engages with the relationship between French, European and Jewish identities in the nineteenth century. It investigates how and why the elite of French Jewry constructed a supranational European identity in this period.
My doctoral dissertation “The Europeanisation of French Jews: French Jewish perceptions of Jews in Southeast Europe, 1840 to 1880,” which was supported by the Arts and Humanities Research Council and the Posen Foundation, examines the campaign for the civil and political equality of Jews in the successor states to the Ottoman Empire. By adopting a transnational perspective on this campaign, my work sheds light on the relationship between the construction of European identity, the development of international law and French imperialism. International advocacy not only shaped French Jewish political leaders’ perceptions of other Jews but also their own self-understanding. I examine the europeanisation of French Jews from two main angles: Europe as practice and Europe as an ideal. While previous scholars have seen the Paris-based Alliance Israélite Universelle as the main actor in this campaign, my work shows that the organisation’s limited political leverage led French Jews to cooperate with Jewish activists in other European capitals. This transnational cooperation significantly modified the arguments and strategies deployed by French Jews. Ultimately, it also created a hierarchy between centre and periphery in the European Jewish world, with activists in Western European capitals perceiving themselves as a group distinct from the Jews on whose behalf they acted. The origins of modern Jewish solidarity that the Alliance epitomises have so far been analysed in the French context. In contrast, I argue that the activism of the organisation’s founders was further determined by their political socialisation during the 1848 revolutions: this generation was embedded in a pan-European network of émigré liberals, heavily relied on the emancipatory rhetoric of the Spring of Nations, and sought to implement the ideal of Europe as a homogenous and democratic space that had motivated the wave of revolutions.
How did you come to the field of history and French/European history?
When I grew up I loved novels with a rich historical background (not necessarily historical novels per se though), going to museums, especially Jewish history museums. Yet, I did not think of studying history at university until my last year of high school. When the moment came to choose what to study at university, doing a BA in history just seemed like the natural thing to do. My reasoning back then was very simple and along the lines of “this degree will allow me to keep learning about the world and understand contemporary society better.”
Before I started my PhD, my background was actually not in French or Western European history (which is what is often meant by “European” history). I was educated in France before moving to Britain for university. Anyone familiar with how history and literature are taught in French schools will know that the curriculum is extremely Franco-centric. The result of this education is that I wanted to study historical fields that were never mentioned in my French high school – namely, Jewish history and Eastern European history. It is only towards the end of my undergraduate studies that I started being interested in Western Europe, and France more specifically. This happened mainly because I heard about the existence of the Alliance Israélite Universelle and started wondering how the creation of this organisation impacted on relationships within the Jewish world, and how it redefined hierarchies and boundaries within it. My scholarship in fact combines all these fields – French, Jewish and European (both East and West) history.
Have you ever worked outside academia and if so, did this affect your research interests and your current career?
I did not immediately consider doing a PhD after my MA. Although I had loved doing this degree, other jobs attracted me. At the time, I was doing freelance translation work from French and Serbian into English, as well as volunteering with a feminist and pacifist civil society organisation in Belgrade called Women in Black. My daytime job was as a development assistant at London Metropolitan Archives. My role there was to take care of the public face of the archives: organising historical walks in London, literary festivals at Keats House, developing material for school sessions based on documents kept at these archives – just think London sewages, Charles Dickens, Charlie Chaplin, workhouses…it was a lot of fun! I realised two things while I was working there: first, that I really liked digging for materials in the archives but that I would rather do this in the framework of academic research, second, that I missed writing and developing historical arguments. So I applied for PhD programmes and funding. My volunteering experience with Women in Black also affected my research interests quite significantly. It was a first-hand experience of political activism: seeing the mechanisms of lobbying and of how activist networks function, understanding how non-governmental organisations overcome (or not) their lack of political leverage, etc. In an indirect and personal way, this helped me understand the Jewish networks I examined in my dissertation better.
What did you do in the months following submission and the viva?
I took a day off after handing in my dissertation and then immediately went back to work because I had to give a paper on my postdoc topic at a conference a few weeks later. Many friends had semi-jokingly complained about suffering from postpartum depression after handing in their baby thesis. I guess having something on the horizon helped me dealing with the “what’s next?” question. The months after submission and the viva were also pretty busy with job applications for the following academic year. I was extremely lucky in that I still had funding for the whole academic year. This allowed to go to France and start doing archival research for my next research project.
Could you tell us about your current position and how you are finding it so far?
I am currently a Lady Davis postdoctoral fellow at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. This is a non-teaching postdoctoral position so I can spend most of my time writing. Jerusalem is also a great place to be at this point in my career: there are many documents in the archives here that I need to revise my dissertation into a monograph, as well as documents I need for my next research project – a biography of Adolphe Crémieux, the most important French Jewish leader in the 19th century. And now, for the first time in my career, I will quote Paris Match: “le poids des mots, le choc des photos” ! Here are two fantastic drawings I came across a few months ago, both illustrating a particular aspect of Crémieux’s multi-facetted career:
As one of the most famous lawyers of his time, Adolphe Crémieux is the one on top of the Paris bar. This is from the September 1867 issue of a magazine called Le Musée des familles: lectures du soir.
This drawing by the popular caricaturist Cham shows him as a politician, clearly annoyed at the schoolyard mess of the Constituent assembly in 1848. Crémieux was justice minister twice, the first time during the Second Republic.
What do you wish you had known about life in Israel before moving and researching there?
Half of my undergraduate courses were in Jewish studies and I spent most of my UCL years at the department of Hebrew and Jewish Studies, where almost all staff and students have some connection to Israel – whether they are from there, have lived or studied there. So I was familiar with Israel and Israeli society without having lived there. I suppose it would be the same for a British or an American historian of France going there to do a postdoc. You already know a lot about the country and its history, follow current politics and have so many colleagues from this country that you are not going to have any major surprise once you move there.
What advice can you give to PhD students and ECRs looking for research jobs?
Start applying for jobs as early as you can during your PhD. You might not find a position in the first round of applications, but this will help you develop a new research project, make you think about how you want to revise your dissertation, plan your publication strategy, familiarise yourself with the process of job applications. Special advice for female ECRs/PhD candidates: do not ever think you are not qualified enough for a job! This is the worst disservice you can do yourself. Also, although this might seem very obvious to some, it is still worth stressing that you need to switch from PhD to postdoc application rhythm. In concrete terms, this means applying for positions as soon as you start your postdoc (or even before) if you have a one-year position. Have all the documents ready for this round of applications since you maybe be in the middle of moving or settling somewhere.
Is there anything else you’d like to share with us?
Friends and family are the most stable environment you will have in this transition period so don’t neglect them!